Ian Bron and Allan Cutler
The following piece ran in the Hill Times on October 21, 2013.
We had hoped that that the Conservatives would commit to protecting Canadians values through the Throne Speech. We had watched and waited for improvements in existing laws already designed to protect these values. But we did not waste time in false hopes. There appeared to be something for everyone offered in the Throne Speech unless you are an advocate of truth, honesty and transparency in government. In fact, we did not witness anything that promotes openness and honesty in government. The following details some of the significant ‘lacks’.
1. A commitment to strengthen the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act. The PSDPA came into force in early 2006, fulfilling a key Conservative promise. However, the seven years since have shown it to be wanting. The first commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, refused to seriously investigate any cases. Second, the PSDPA, and by extension the tribunal it created, is unlikely to protect any whistleblower, since the burden of proof to demonstrate reprisal is much too high. Whistleblowers also have no right of access to courts.
There are deep flaws including unwarranted secrecy and jurisdictional limits that allow public servants to avoid sanctions simply by resigning or finding a job outside of the public sector. In spite of the obvious and urgent need to improve the PSDPA, the government has refused to initiate the legally-required five-year review of the law which is now overdue.
2. A plan to expand the Access to Information Act to all publicly funded federal entities. This would include the offices of MPs and Senators. The Courts have confirmed that access to government information is an aspect of freedom of speech. Citizens have a right to be informed about how they are being governed. Presently, too much information is veiled in secrecy and the general rule seems to be that the more damaging information is, the more likely access to it will be denied. Since it’s impossible to hold the government to account without such information, this also hurts our democracy.
While the Conservatives did expand the Act to Crown Corporations in its first year, they also expanded exemptions that government departments could claim. As a result, Canada’s legislative framework is now behind those of other Western democracies, and the system so dysfunctional that it’s near collapse.
3. A promise to fully staff and launch the Public Appointments Commission. Promised in 2006, initial steps were taken to implement it. When opposition parties refused to install a Conservative party loyalist as head of the new agency, it stalled and effectively died. Had the Conservatives followed through, they would have created a merit-based system for thousands of appointments that in the past could be — and were — frequently staffed on the whim of the prime minister. Many of these positions were, and remain, pure patronage appointments, given to loyal party backers.
4. A promise to strengthen ethics rules. Ministers and cabinet members currently make decisions on matters in which they might have a private interest — affecting, say, a business they might own. Furthermore, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner can only investigate certain narrow instances of alleged misconduct, and must stop any investigation if police are investigating. The result under the Conservatives has been consistent with previous governments: apparent ethics violations are swept under the carpet. The most recent example involved announcements and support from the prime minister in the spring election involving Peter Penashue — who had just resigned because of campaign financing violations. As for the current Senate debacle, it speaks for itself.
5. A commitment to close lobbying loopholes. The Accountability Act set new rules for lobbyists but left large loopholes. Unregistered lobbying is still permitted as unpaid and part-time lobbyists are considered ‘advocates’ and aren’t required to register as lobbyists. Ministers aren’t required to record all contacts with lobbyists. This allows some groups access to government officials other Canadians might not have, without any transparency or accountability.
These are just some broad areas the government should have been included in its Throne Speech. Each would increase the accountability of government — and consequently Canadians’ faith in their government. But we learn again from experience: accountability measures are only attractive to parties in opposition.